The tearing down of his ubiquitous statue in Baghdad Wednesday symbolized the collapse of his regime as U.S. troops took control the capital's streets to a jubilant welcome. Iraqis cheered and waved, denouncing Saddam and, in many cases, praising President George Bush. When a group of Iraqis took a sledgehammer to the giant plinth beneath a Saddam statue opposite the international press headquarters at the Palestine Hotel, journalists and TV anchors everywhere couldn't resist making the comparison with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While the statue's toppling may become the signature video clip signifying the event, images from elsewhere in the city served as a reminder that this was nothing like Berlin in 1989.
For one thing, there's still a war going on. Fierce firefights raged around the city's university, and thousands of guerrilla fighters loyal to Saddam remained at large all over Baghdad. Coalition commanders and U.S. political leaders stress that the fighting is far from over. Baghdad's hospitals, stretched beyond breaking point in treating the wounded are a reminder that what was for the U.S. a relatively easy military campaign had nonetheless left thousands of civilian casualties. The mass looting of government offices and private businesses in different parts of the city also underscores the threat of chaos breaking out in the power vacuum left by the regime's collapse.
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Still, whatever Saddam's whereabouts and condition, his regime is no more. That much was clear Wednesday morning when Saddam's Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, failed to show up at the Palestine Hotel to repeat his daily insistence that U.S. forces were nowhere near Baghdad. Nor did the minions he had assigned to control the movement of every foreign correspondent. More importantly, it appears that his vaunted Special Republican Guard hadn't show up either, leaving the U.S. passage into the capital impeded only by harassment fire from Iraqi irregulars.
Despite the collapse of Saddam's control, the situation in Baghdad and beyond remains fluid. There are clearly still thousands, or even tens of thousands of armed Saddam loyalists inside the capital, and it's not clear whether or how they plan to fight on once it becomes clear that the regime is finished. That, and the need for U.S. troops to take on the role of ensuring civil order to prevent an outbreak of anarchy leave the situation in Baghdad possibly even more dangerous than before U.S. forces took the city.
Saddam loyalists are also fighting on in the key northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, and Tikrit has long been seen as a potential center of die-hard resistance. But the image of crowds in Baghdad tearing down Saddam's statues will have an immeasurable psychological effect on all Iraqis, and coalition commanders will be hoping that will speed the collapse of the last resistance to "Operation Iraqi Freedom."